Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of coasting to an easy victory in the March 17 election took a surprising hit on Thursday when a Panels Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post and its Hebrew sister newspaper, Ma’ariv Sof Hashavua, found that a hefty majority of Israelis want him to lose.The poll, taken on Wednesday among 500 respondents representing a statistical sample of the adult population, indicated that the election could end up being close and assumptions that Netanyahu cannot be defeated may be incorrect.It asked respondents whether they want Netanyahu to remain prime minister after the vote. Sixty percent said no, 34% said yes, and 6% did not know.The poll asked about several party leaders and asked respondents whom they would prefer one-on-one if there were direct elections for prime minister.In a head-to-head race between Netanyahu and former welfare and social services minister Moshe Kahlon, 46% preferred Kahlon, 36% Netanyahu and 18% did not know. Between Netanyahu and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, 43% said Sa’ar, 38% Netanyahu and 19% did not know.Likud activists revealed on Thursday that Sa’ar is considering making a political comeback just three months after announcing at a pre-Rosh Hashana toast that he was taking a break from politics.He is mulling running against Netanyahu in the January 6 Likud leadership race, they said. Sa’ar declined to comment. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Labor was almost tied with Netanyahu in the poll, with 44% saying they would prefer him, compared to 45% for Netanyahu and 11% who did not know.Netanyahu defeated the other party leaders, beating Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett by 12 percentage points, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid by 17 points, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman by 28 points.While a Geocartography Institute poll broadcast on Army Radio this week predicted the Likud would win 30 Knesset seats and polls on Channel 2 and 10 reported 22, the Panels poll found Netanyahu’s party would win only 21, just three more than Bayit Yehudi’s 18.If the election were held now, Labor would win 14 seats, Kahlon’s party and Yesh Atid 11 each, Yisrael Beytenu nine, United Torah Judaism and Meretz both eight, Shas seven, Hadash five, and Hatnua and the United Arab List four each. Balad and Kadima would not pass the electoral threshold, which has risen from 2% to 3.25%.The poll found that 64% of respondents believe the country’s socioeconomic situation has gotten worse under the outgoing government and 58% think the security situation has worsened.When asked what issue will decide which party they will choose on Election Day, 34% said the economy, 30% security, 14% social justice, 10% matters of religion and state, 5% Arab-Jewish relations and 2% education and culture. Just 1% said Israel’s foreign relations. The poll had a margine of error of ± 4.3%.Herzog said on Thursday that Netanyahu can be beaten and that parties from across the political spectrum could end up recommending to President Reuven Rivlin that he form the government rather than Netanyahu. Channel 10 reported that Liberman and Kahlon could join the Left in trying to prevent Rivlin from assigning Netanyahu the task of forming a governing coalition.Hatnua chairwoman Tzipi Livni will decide in upcoming days whether to run together with Labor. The poll found that if Livni joined Labor, the party would rise from 14 seats to 20. Livni and Herzog will travel to Washington together this weekend for the Saban Forum. Someone who described himself as a Netanyahu confidant texted Lapid’s No. 2 in Yesh Atid, MK Shai Piron, on Thursday about the possibility of him leading a break-off party from Yesh Atid and joining a new government with the Likud, Shas and UTJ under the current Knesset. Such a move would end the process of initiating an election.Yesh Atid blasted the reported attempt to split up the party as a “hysterical and pathetic” attempt to avoid elections.“The prime minister is panicking,” Yesh Atid said in a statement. “He knows he is going to lose his seat in the next elections and is making every effort to prevent them.”Shortly after the reports emerged, Netanyahu’s office denied the premier’s involvement in any attempt to split apart Yesh Atid.“This is a pathetic political spin that reflects the panic that grips the failed finance minister Lapid,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.Also on Thursday evening, Labor MK Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, 78, was taken to Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin. A hospital spokesman said he was suffering from a fever and was being treated.Julie Steigerwald contributed to this report.